Surprisingly, On February 10th, 1961, Life magazine’s front page headline read “Back From Space, A Confident Ham” referring to the world’s first astronaut, a chimp named Ham. A year later, on February 20th, 1962, John Glenn made space history orbiting the world three times in just under five hours. Shepard and Mitchell landed on the Moon on the 5th of February in 1971; they collected 42.9 kilograms of lunar samples or “Moon rocks.”
Although many believe that an American-built spacecraft was the first to achieve a soft landing on the Moon, it was not the case. In fact, an unmanned Russian craft, the Luna 9, has that honor—it landed gently on the Moon on February 3, 1966. The Russians were also the first, with the February 4, 1993 deployment of the Znamya 2, to test a large (approximately 82 foot) “Space Mirror” as a way to collect solar energy that could be used on Earth. A much darker event in space history was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003; it broke apart over Texas, killing all seven crewmembers, while returning from its 28th mission in space.
It is interesting that there are no significant meteor showers during the month of February. But this February is definitely a good month for planets.
Venus will shine very brightly in the early morning February skies. Look for it in the east where it will rise around 4:30am, about two hours before the Sun. In the early evening skies, one of the brightest objects will be Jupiter, the “banded” planet. Jupiter will be visible in the west at dusk, trailing the Sun by about three hours as it sets. Uranus will appear nearby, just to the west of Jupiter, but only a good telescope will reveal the planet’s presence. Saturn will also grace the evening skies in February. Look for Saturn in the east later in the evening; the planet peeks over the horizon around 9:30pm and is easily seen by 10:30 or 11:00pm.
The Winter Solstice is now well in the past and the days are growing longer at a rate of about 2.4 minutes per day. One can thus look forward to spring and warmer, more pleasant (unless you like the cold and snow) weather.
Photo composite of a lunar eclipse taken in 2008 by Custer member Steve Orlando